Episode 27: Confronting Extreme Heat With the World’s First Chief Heat Officer

Miami is so renowned for its warm weather that its professional basketball team is the Miami Heat. But extreme heat can be life-threatening, even in cities like Miami that are used to high temperatures. And within cities, lower-income and minority neighborhoods feel the effects of extreme heat more acutely due to a lack of shade and green spaces. What can be done to protect vulnerable communities from extreme heat? 

The world’s first chief heat officer, Jane Gilbert, who leads Miami-Dade County’s efforts to deal with extreme heat, is working on the answers. She recently spoke with Issues editor Jason Lloyd about the need for win-win solutions (more air conditioning alone can’t solve the problem), the difficulties of planting trees on busy streets, and engaging with citizens on solutions for keeping communities safe in a warmer future. 

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Jason Lloyd: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University.

As climate change affects weather patterns around the world, many people are experiencing hotter temperatures, but not equally. Extreme heat is a particular risk to cities, which, because of a phenomenon called the urban heat island effect, can be significantly hotter than surrounding areas. Within cities, lower income and minority neighborhoods feel the effects more acutely due to a lack of shade and green spaces. What can be done to protect vulnerable communities from extreme heat?

I’m Jason Lloyd, managing editor of Issues. I’m joined by the world’s first Chief Heat Officer, Jane Gilbert, who works for Miami-Dade County. Her position as Chief Heat Officer was created to help address the dangers of extreme heat and is supported by the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation and the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance. There are now more than half a dozen Chief Heat Officers worldwide.

Welcome, Jane. To start off, could you tell us more about Miami-Dade County and why it needs a Chief Heat Officer?

Jane Gilbert: The city of Miami is the largest city within Miami-Dade County, which is a metro government that includes 34 municipalities within it. At the city of Miami, I was the first chief resilience officer, looking at all climate impacts and other equity issues within the city. When we went to neighborhoods to learn about people’s top concerns related to climate change, one of the things that surprised us, because not only I was serving as a chief resilience officer, but there was a chief resilience officer at the county, Miami-Dade County where I am now, and one at the city of Miami Beach. And we were all working together on a unified resilience strategy.

We were really appointed because Miami and Greater Miami is known internationally for its risk to sea level rise and hurricane risk, and extreme heat wasn’t really large on our radar. But we went out to low income and historically disadvantaged communities and asked people what their top concern was. Actually, extreme heat came up a lot. Then two years ago, a coalition of nonprofit organizations formed this Climate and Equity Coalition, and they did a series of focus groups and surveys in low-income communities, really to—the information I collected was more anecdotal. They did a more robust study. And again, it was not sea level rise. It was not hurricane risk as the top concern. It was extreme heat, both the health risks and the economic burdens associated with extreme heat.

Jason Lloyd: That’s really interesting. The demand really came from the community. Just backing up a little bit, how did you become a chief resilience officer and then the first Chief Heat Officer? What did you study in school?

Jane Gilbert: I was in college and grad school a long time ago, if I had known that there would be a chief resilience officer job back then, I would’ve actually really loved and wanted. That would’ve been my career goal because I was interested in environmental. I studied undergraduate, I studied environmental science. I studied it at a college in New York City, in a very urban context, and then worked for large corporations and then an international nonprofit in the environmental field. And when I went back to grad school, I really wanted to focus on urban community development and environmental work, where the two come together. And I got a master’s in public administration with a focus on urban community development.

But then there was a big time of working in nonprofits and corporate. I didn’t work in local government. The chief resilience officer was my first job in public sector. The job didn’t exist before. Anyway, right before I was chief resilience officer, I was working for our local place-based foundation on their civic leadership agenda around sea level rise. Before that, I had started a nonprofit, focused on environmental education and outreach.

Jason Lloyd: Was it a big shift to go from the private sector and civil society NGO to municipal government?

Jane Gilbert: Each sector has its unique characteristics, and government is not alone. There are certainly benefits to working in government, in the sense of, if you’re at a nonprofit, you are mission-focused a hundred percent, you also have to make sure you can make payroll. That can be distracting, right? So, once you’re in government, you don’t have to worry about making payroll. You have to worry more about, how do I actually move things forward because you’ve got bureaucracy to deal with and you got complicated politics to deal with. Learning how to do that has been a process for me, because when you’re at a nonprofit or corporate world, you can make decisions and implement them pretty quickly.

Jason Lloyd: The position seems like it could be located in any number of departments, ranging from health to public works to emergency management, planning, sustainability, resilience, where you were. Where exactly is the Chief Heat Officer positioned in the government? And how do you interact with those other departments?

Jane Gilbert: Great question and very important one. I report directly to the mayor, but as a—it’s almost like a law firm set up of chiefs: partners, or the partners. There’s a chief resilience officer, as I mentioned. There’s also a chief bay officer and someone who’s head of resilience long-term planning, it’s about an 18-member department, 20-member division I would say. But we report up directly to the mayor, and the point is to be both an internal sort of consulting firm’s strategic partner across all departments in the county.

Whether we’re talking about carbon mitigation or addressing extreme heat from managing or mitigating extreme heat or sea level rise, these are challenges that really need planning, public works, parks, emergency management, building, zoning, need everybody on deck and communications. We need everybody on deck to both understand the risks and the potential ways of solutions. Really, the best solutions are integrated into what the county does day-in and day-out. So that’s my goal and role, is to both integrate thinking about managing and mitigating extreme heat across departments and to identify resources, policies to advance, et cetera, to get there.

Jason Lloyd: Yeah. You may not have a typical day, but what does your day-to-day look like? What are you doing? Do you go into an office? Who are you meeting with, or what kinds of things do you do every day?

Jane Gilbert: This post-COVID world allows us to do a hybrid. I’m in a couple of days a week to do those in-person meetings to make sure we’re building that report, or to attend a meeting of a stakeholder or community-based organization that is a partner in advancing the work. When we created the Extreme Heat Action Plan, we actually did it as a community-wide commitment plan, similar to the way we did our Resilient 305 Strategy. It’s not just an implementing plan for the county, but we have our municipalities involved, our Department of Health, our NOAA National Weather Service, several nonprofit organizations, our university partners. They’re all engaged in identifying the solutions and being a part of the solutions.

Jason Lloyd: Do you have a team that helps you assist with these logistics, coordinating all these activities?

Jane Gilbert: Directly, I have one staff, so we’re stretched pretty thin. But as part of this Office of Resilience, being part of this, they have an arm that’s focused on communications and community partnerships, and I work with them. I get their support a lot with that work. The county has a communications department and I work with them. I have to leverage both through soft influence, and because I report to the mayor, influence with the various departments, whether it’s the Division of Environmental Resource Management or the Department of Emergency Management.

A lot of what I do is set forth what the actions are and help resource and advance them, in partnership to my implementing partners. I am not the lead implementer on a lot of things. It’s really going to be up to these other departments or other partners that aren’t even within the county to implement them. But I’m there to be their advocate and to help. Like right now, one of our big goals is get to, from an average 20% tree canopy within our urban development foundry of Miami-Dade County, to 30%, particularly focusing on those areas with our lowest tree canopy and our most disadvantaged communities.

I’ve got multiple departments working on plans. I’m helping them, supporting them on identifying funders, on grant applications, creating administrative orders or policies that we’re going to advance. That’s sort of my role.

Jason Lloyd: Wow, that’s really interesting. That’s a lot. Sounds like a very dynamic kind of day-to-day thing.

Jane Gilbert: It’s dynamic. It’s sometimes hard to know which thing to prioritize today.

Jason Lloyd: Your to-do list must keep getting shifted around and shuffled.

Jane Gilbert: It does. It does.

Jason Lloyd: I wanted to talk a little bit about heat itself, about the risks that your office is focused on. And as you mentioned, Miami, which is obviously on the southern coast of Florida, is probably more well known for the climate-related risks of hurricanes, flooding, sea level rise, things like that. So what are the kind of big vulnerabilities in the city for heat? And also, how does heat interact with those other hazards that Miami faces?

Jane Gilbert: We face chronic high heat here in Miami. A place like the Northwest that had their heat wave a couple of years ago, or even what happened last summer, those are episodic high heat times in areas where people aren’t accustomed to it and may not have high AC penetration. It’s a little different how they would maybe create a heat action plan, for instance, than what Miami, where most people have access to cooling. Is it affordable? Maybe not. If it breaks down, can they fix it quickly? Maybe not. If they’re living outside, they need access. If they work outside, they have to be exposed to that chronic high heat. It’s really about identifying, what are the most vulnerable area?

We’re getting increasing heat here. It’s always been hot in Miami, particularly in the summer months. It’s not just the temperature, it’s the temperature plus humidity. We have to look at heat index, not just temperature. But it’s always been hot. We’ve had an average increase—since 1985, actually—of a slightly over two degrees Fahrenheit, 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit for the average minimum temperature increase. Our nighttime temperatures aren’t cooling as much as they used to at an even higher rate. I guess that’s the average minimum temperature.

The other piece is that the disparity from one neighborhood to another, in terms of temperature, has really increased because of development patterns. It’s not just climate change, it’s how we’re developing cities that are contributing to this heat. Waste heat from buildings and cars, more impervious pavements, less tree canopy, less vegetation, darker surfaces, all of these things contribute to urban heat islands where we can have temperatures as much as eight degrees hotter than what the National Weather Service is reporting out. Those are areas of real focus as well.

It’s looking at where are people having a hard time affording cooling solutions, who are exposed the most outside because they have to walk to a unshaded bus stop and then wait there forever, then they end up in an emergency room just trying to get to work. And that’s not unusual. Or some outdoor workers, those particularly in the agricultural and the construction sector can be up to 35 times more likely to have a heat related illness than your average person because of the level of exposure they’re having.

And we have like over 150 days a year with a heat index over 90 degrees. We historically have had about seven days a year with a heat index at 105. But by mid-century, that’s going to go to 88 days a year or close to three months. So basically, we’re going to have a summer where it feels like temperatures that are dangerous for everyone who are exposed outside for any particular time, which not only has significant impacts on both the health risks of vulnerable populations and their expenses or lost income, but it makes everyone in the county having to change their lifestyle.

Jason Lloyd: You’ve touched on this, but I’m wondering how helpful it is to think about it or talk about it as a climate change problem, as opposed to this chronic issue that is one of several aspects of changing a dynamic city, including development and where people live and changing patterns of socioeconomic status and neighborhoods. How do you relate it to climate change, and is that a helpful way to frame extreme heat?

Jane Gilbert: Absolutely. No, it’s very important, because I’ve been here in Miami 27 years, and I feel the difference between the summers 27 years ago and what they’re like now, in the same neighborhood with the same amount of tree cover. That is climate change, and that is going to get worse. The average temperature is going to go from a week to three months out of the year for the heat index. That’s climate change. Absolutely, the baseline is the climate change impact.

Then some of the equity issues and some of the solutions to addressing the fact that it’s going to be hotter regardless, but how do we mitigate the urban heat as much as possible? Like converting our fleets, making our buildings more efficient, more reflective, having more vegetation, more tree canopy, all of those things can really cool a neighborhood. I like to look at it as both. Whenever I talk about extreme heat, I talk about both, that it’s not just climate change, it’s our development patterns, but it’s both.

Jason Lloyd: That’s really interesting. I would conceive of a Chief Heat Officer as being primarily maybe adaptation-focused or resilience-focused. But there is really this mitigation aspect of trying to address how development happens, but even more broadly, with planting trees as a carbon sequestration strategy.

Jane Gilbert: Even our sea level rise adaptation team looks for solutions that are double, triple wins, right? We need to look at things that aren’t going to exacerbate the problem. I can’t just throw a bunch of air conditioning out there. It really has to be about energy efficiency, retrofits, and how do we most efficiently deliver cooling solutions to particularly low-income homes? That does result in carbon mitigation, local jobs, and adaptation. Same with the tree—the tree planning has so many different wins because it also helps with the flood mitigation and storm water quality, carbon sequestration, and certainly, extreme heat mitigation.

Jason Lloyd: In addition to being informed by the physical sciences, which is obviously incredibly important for this, there is the social science component that I’m really interested in too. I’m wondering about—Eric Klinenberg, famously, in his study of the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave, talked about social cohesion as being a really important component of surviving a heat wave, in addition to things like economic status and the availability of public services and things like that. But that social aspect seems like a really, really hard thing for a government agency to have influence over. I’m wondering if that is something that you think about.

Jane Gilbert: I absolutely think about it. I am blessed to work for a mayor who gets the importance of that and has made community engagement and involvement one of the pillars of her administration, I have her backing on this. That’s one of the reasons why we chose to make our Extreme Heat Action Plan not just a county plan, but a collective action plan where we had multiple stakeholders and representatives from throughout the community involved in it.

We’ve done a few different programs to build capacity in neighborhoods. One is, we have a robust program of training disaster volunteers, particularly focusing on lower income and disadvantaged communities, where they take—it’s like a 40-hour training to manage any disaster. But I worked with a team that runs those trainings in developing a heat health enhancement training, then rolling that out, not only in English, but in Spanish and Haitian Creole.

These are people that live in communities, work for community-based organizations that know their neighbors. In our Heat Season Outreach Campaign, we made sure that we targeted messaging in the zip codes that we knew had the highest rates of emergency room visits and hospitalizations. We, this year, are looking to do much more partnership with those community-based organizations in that person-to-person message. All our messaging around heat is, certainly no risks to yourself in terms of when to rest, find shade, drink water, but also think about your loved ones, your neighbors, those that may be vulnerable that you need to think about and check on. It’s a critical component. How successful are we on it? That’s a good question for an academic partner to help us with that.

Jason Lloyd: You talked earlier about the Extreme Heat Action Plan. Could you just tell us more about what that is?

Jane Gilbert: Our Extreme Heat Action Plan has three main goals. The first one is to inform, prepare, and protect people. That’s all our communications, education, outreach, our preparedness of disaster, volunteers of healthcare practitioners, and protection of outdoor workers through incentives and information with employers. We’re now looking at a county-wide requirement for all our employees and then also our vendors.

The second goal is to cool our homes and shelters. Everything that I talked about in terms of energy efficiency for low-income populations and access to affordable cooling solutions. We recently put in 1,700 efficient AC units in all our public housing where there wasn’t any AC. That’s one of the actions. We’ve accelerated our weatherization program and resilient retrofits for multi-family housing, but then also look at our cooling centers and make sure that they have the evacuation shelters, and they have the backup energy power that is enough to keep it cool in the event of a widespread and extended power outage.

The third main goal is cooling neighborhoods, and that is everything that we talked about in terms of tree planting, cool pavements, cool roofs, certainly working with our mitigation team on converting to EV fleets, and energy efficiency in all buildings because that’ll reduce waste heat. Those are the three main goals. Within them, each of those goal areas, I have about six actions that we’re working on.

Jason Lloyd: You’ve anticipated this a little bit, but you’ve talked about your priorities as the Chief Heat Officer and how some of the role has emerged from your work as the resilience officer. I’m wondering how you interface with the public? How do their community concerns and community problems, potentially also solutions, how do they filter up to your office, and how do you think about that?

Jane Gilbert: First, in the creating of our plan itself, what we did is we had a very diverse represented task force that, not only includes some of the stakeholders I mentioned, like the Department of Health and National Weather Service and municipalities and university partners and nonprofit partners, but I did a community-wide call for representatives who had experienced the problems with extreme heat. I provided them stipends. We provided translation services. We wanted people who had real experience to not just participate in public workshops, but be part of the decisionmakers as to prioritizing the actions.

Then we did a series of public workshops with that whole task force so they could hear from the community. We provided translation services and really used our community-based partners to do the outreach. We had ones focused on outdoor workers, one focused on housing, on streets and trees, on emergency preparedness and response, on data and research, on general public education, on communities. And really, that input informed the plan. Then I used the task force to help me prioritize the actions.

Now, going forward, as we build the solutions. For instance, one solution is around cooling our commutes, making sure we have trees and maybe access to drinking water along key pedestrian corridors and bus stops. As we look to site that, we’re looking to partner with community-based organizations that work in those neighborhoods to engage the public. Because actually planting trees in the right of way is one of the hardest things to get done, because there’s so much competition for infrastructure, storm water infrastructure, now, data infrastructure, electrical infrastructure that you can’t get the tree in the way. Then you have ADA requirements for the sidewalks. You’ve got to make sure you plant a tree that’s not going to then buckle up the sidewalk and create its own problems. You certainly don’t want a tree that’s going to come down in a hurricane and take an electrical line with it.

People like trees, but they don’t want trees to drop things on their cars. Sometimes, siting trees, you really need the community engaged to do it right, to make sure that that tree is going to last. As we actually develop solutions, we also need to engage the public.

Jason Lloyd: I had no idea that trying to get trees on the median and or in the sidewalk was such a complicated thing. You think of it as like a no-brainer, right?

Jane Gilbert: Well, there’s a lot of competition for that space.

Jason Lloyd: As I’ve mentioned, you are the first Chief Heat Officer of a municipality in the United States, but you’re no longer the only one, either in the US or in the world. There’s a group of Chief Heat Officers. I’m wondering if you work with them. Do you share lessons and best practices? How does that work? How do you get information and knowledge from outside the city and communities in Miami?

Jane Gilbert: Absolutely. I had no idea that a year and a half after I was the first to be appointed, there’d be eight of me across the world or so. Really great. I’m on group chats with them. We share resources all the time. We actually do some monthly calls. The Chief Heat Officer David Hondula in Phoenix, we’re both part of a pilot with the National Oceanic—with NOAA. We’re having exchange calls and meetings through that venue. There are a lot of different opportunities. I definitely rely on, particularly my US-based ones, but not exclusively, by any means.

I was on a call yesterday with the Chief Heat Officers, and I say officers, in Melbourne, because they’re part of a job share. It’s two women that share the job. I was on a call with them yesterday. And the Arsht-Rock Resilience Center has this Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, they’re really behind many—not all the Chief Heat Officers, but behind many of them having been appointed. They convene us every once in a while, which has been really useful, and yesterday’s was because they’ve just launched this heat action platform that’s a resource for any city government interested in doing this work, to really understand what are the steps you need to take, what are the case studies and examples for understanding heat vulnerability in your city, understanding how people perceive heat risk in your city, or how to develop a heat action plan, how to evaluate solutions. It’s a great resource. But anyway, we were both on a call. It’s hard to schedule a call with someone from Australia, I find.

Jason Lloyd: Yes.

Jane Gilbert: The time, right? But it’s so rewarding. We learn so much. I mean, Freetown, Sierra Leone has a Chief Heat Officer. 60% of their residents are in informal settlements who probably don’t have access to air conditioning at all. Their climate’s very similar to Miami’s. It’s a whole nother set of challenges that they face.

Jason Lloyd: I would imagine that some of their solutions, their approaches might be applicable in the United States as well.

Jane Gilbert: They are. Actually, recently, there’s this open marketplace where they put a roof top just to shade it for the women that are predominantly women vendors and provide shade for them, and they’re going to hopefully do solar and have charging. We’re looking at similar types of structures. We have very strict building codes for hurricane resistance, for anything that’s like a permanent canopy structure, but we can do it.

Jason Lloyd: You’ve been in the job for a year and a half. Has anything surprised you over the past year and a half?

Jane Gilbert: I never thought it would get the public attention that it did, just naming the title. It certainly really helped raise awareness for the issue globally, because it has been a silent killer, extreme heat. FEMA has set up to deal with floods and hurricanes and forest fires. It’s not set up to deal with extreme heat at all. Why? Because it’s not property that gets damaged, it’s people that die. More people die of that than any of those combined. It has been a silent issue. It’s not terribly visible for television news. It’s something that, I think, I never would’ve thought of this. And thank you, my mayor and the Arsht-Rock Resilience Center for thinking of it. By just the sheer appointing someone a Chief Heat Officer really attracted a lot of public attention. I think that’s why other cities have also done it, is that it sends the message of importance to, both internally to their city county governments, but also externally, that this is a priority for the city to address.

Jason Lloyd: Thank you for joining us, Jane.

You can learn more about what Jane and Miami-Dade County are doing to combat extreme heat by visiting miamidade.gov/heat. You can visit heat.gov to find more resources on extreme heat. You can find these links and more on our show page. Email us at [email protected] with any comments or suggestions, and I encourage you to subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks to our podcast producer, Kimberly Quach, and audio engineer, Shannon Lynch. I’m Jason Lloyd, managing editor of Issues in Science and Technology. Thank you for joining us.

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Cite this Article

“Episode 27: Confronting Extreme Heat With the World’s First Chief Heat Officer” Issues in Science and Technology (March 7, 2022).